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The Wires of War

Technology and the Global Struggle for Power and Order

From the former News Policy lead at Google, an urgent and groundbreaking account of the high-stakes global cyberwar brewing between Western democracies and the autocracies of China and Russia—that could potentially crush democracy.

From 2016 to 2020, Jacob Helberg led Google’s internal global product policy efforts to combat disinformation and foreign interference. During this time, he found himself in the midst of what can only be described as a quickly escalating Cold War between democracy and autocracy.

Since the conflict takes place in the murky gray zone over trade routes and fiber optic lines, Helberg calls this developing tech-fueled battle a Gray War. On the front-end, we’re fighting to control the software—applications, news information, social media platforms, and more—of what we see on the screens of our computers, tablets and phones, a clash which started out primarily with Russia, but now increasingly includes China and Iran. Even more ominously, we’re also engaged in a hidden back-end battle—largely with China—to control the Internet’s hardware, which includes devices like cellular phones, satellites, fiber-optic cables, and 5G networks.

This Gray War will shape the world’s balance of power for the coming century as autocracies exploit 21st century methods to re-divide the world into 20th century-style spheres of influence. Helberg cautions that the spoils of this war are power over every meaningful aspect of our society, including our economy, our infrastructure, the screens we constantly consult for information and entertainment—and what news we deem as truth. Without a firm partnership with the government, Silicon Valley is unable to protect democracy from the autocrats looking to sabotage it from places like Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. The stakes of the ongoing cyberwar are no less than our nation’s sovereignty and institutional agency, the freedom of our democratic allies, and even the ability of each of us to control our own fates, Helberg says. And time is running out.

Jacob Helberg is a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Helberg is also co-chairing the Brookings Institution China Strategy Working Group. From 2016 to 2020, Helberg led Google’s internal global product policy efforts to combat disinformation and foreign interference, including policy and enforcement processes against state-backed foreign interference, misinformation, and actors undermining election integrity. Helberg graduated magna cum laude with a BA in international affairs from the George Washington University and received his MS in cybersecurity risk and strategy from New York University.